When we talk about what is good for a person, our talk may invoke different notions of a person’s good.  No one of these notions has normative priority over the others; rather, each does important normative work.  Arguably, some disputes among welfare theorists may be due to a failure to distinguish these notions.  For purposes of illustration, I will focus on two of them here, though as will I explain, there are no doubt others.

Sometimes our talk about what is good for a person concerns the good for an individual considered as a member of a distinct biological kind.  Just as we might talk about what is good for blue jays or Labrador retrievers, we might talk about what is good for human beings, H.  So when we describe some welfare object, O, as good for a person, P, we treat as P’s good whatever is good for H.  For example, the good for human beings might include proper nutrition, the exercise and development of their capacities, pleasure or enjoyment, and both autonomy and interconnection.

The notion of the good for a person as the good for a human being figures critically in our efforts to set social, economic, and humanitarian policy.  We employ it, for example, in setting up and regulating our educational systems and our systems of justice, and in deciding which social problems to address with our limited economic resources.  We employ it, too, when we undertake to raise our children—at least as a general guide—on the assumption that what is good for human beings will generally determine what is good for our children.

But sometimes what is good for a human being differs from what is good for a particular human individual.  For example, strong interpersonal relationships may be good for human beings, but problematic for, or at least unimportant to, some individual human beings.  Sexual intimacy may be good for human beings, but some individual human beings have no interest in, and so would derive no pleasure (and possibly distress) from sexual activity.  Some individuals value intellectual pursuits far in excess of emotional or physical intimacy—or vice versa.

Although we might make a mistake in denying that the person for whom certain human goods are inaccessible or unimportant misses out on something valuable, we can make a different, but equally serious, mistake in insisting that those goods are nevertheless good for her.  In lacking the athletic skill needed to compete in the Olympics (or in most athletic events, come to think of it), I surely miss out on something valuable.  But it would neither follow that trying to develop the requisite athletic skill is good for me nor that my life is irrevocably diminished by my lack of ability.  Of course, lives sometimes can be irrevocably diminished by the inaccessibility to an individual (whether by her nature or her circumstances) of certain human goods.  My point is simply that an individual might value and benefit from something, O, that is out of the ordinary, and so something that is good for a human only in being an instance of a highly general good (e.g. a source of pleasure).   In such cases, we might meaningfully say that O is good for her, even if not good for human beings as such.

The notion of the good for a person as the good for a particular individual, like the notion of the good for a human being, can figure in our policy-making, as when we seek to address the special needs of some of our fellows.  It also figures critically in our child rearing.  Effective parents attend not only to what would benefit their children given that they are human beings, but also to what might benefit them as the particular persons that they are.  As some desire theorists have argued, the good for a particular person might include things that have no particular value, or even some things that are rather unsavory; Richard Kraut’s icicle-collector and John Rawls’ grass-counter, they would insist, do not present counter-examples, just examples of how individuals’ good can vary.

When objectivists about welfare insist that no such things could be good for an individual and subjectivists insist that they might well be good for her, both speak truthfully, if incompletely.  For each deploys, a different notion of the good for an individual, neither of which should be ignored and each of which comes to the fore when we confront varying normative questions.  To devise social policy by attending just to the good of a particular individual would not enable us effectively to set social and economic policy.  Yet attending just to the good of human beings may lead us to neglect or overlook how a particular individual might be benefited, how her life might go better for her.

This is not simply because individuals may be idiosyncratic in ways such as those already described, but also because our accounts of what is good for human beings will, necessarily, be pitched at a fairly high level of generality (perhaps with some lower-level specifications) and so will not readily address our more fine-grained questions about what is good for a particular individual.  Even if we were certain that the good for human beings includes, say, fulfilling vocations and avocations, just which ones benefit a particular individual will depend not only on the features in virtue of which she is a human being, but also on the features that make her the particular individual that she is.

I mentioned at the beginning that there are other notions of the good for a person.  For example, sometimes when we talk about what is good for a person, we consider whether a particular O is good for her, whereas sometimes we consider whether that O would figure in a good life for her.  After all, the sundry things that might be good for us as individuals may not all be practically compatible, not only because pursuing them would make conflicting demands on our time and attention, but because those goods may themselves have shapes that will shape our lives in turn, excluding some goods from consideration.  These, I take it, were the sorts of considerations that led Rawls to talk about “plans of life” and use of the “counting principles.”

Sometimes, too, when we talk about what is good for a person, we invoke a kind of ideal or exemplar of human flourishing, against which we might assess particular lives.  This may guide our own decision-making as we lead our lives, or help to direct the lives of those under our care.  It may also figure in exploring possibilities for certain kinds of human enhancement.

We can recognize that we deploy distinct notions of what is good for a person without concluding that that there is no fact of the matter about what is good for a person—there may well be, but what fact that is will depend on what sort of question we are asking about a person’s good.  And we can do so without concluding that our metaphysics of good-for must be hopelessly complex.  The relational property of being good for may be singular even if we must be careful about just how, where, when, and why it is instantiated.  Anyway, these are my preliminary thoughts about matters that I think welfare theorists would do well to explore further.


Connie S. Rosati is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, her focuses include: Ethics, Philosophy of Law, and Social and Political Philosophy


9 Replies to “Connie S. Rosati: What is Good for a Person

  1. Hi Connie, thanks for the lovely post! Am I right to think you want to distinguish “good for a person in general” from “good for a particular person”? I suppose that what is good for a particular person can change over time especially if it is reasonable to think there is some way in which we’ve become different people (in the way Parfit supposed we might). Do you think there is a good perspective from which we can say what is good for a being who might be two different people at different times? Suppose I’m an Olympic runner – I might hate to lose my legs and think it is one of the worst fortunes that could befall me. But, suppose I do lose my legs, adapt well enough to being in a wheelchair, and become an academic. Then different things will be good for me and I might even think that losing my legs was one of the best things that happened to me (I might be a very happy academic but a miserable Olympic athlete). I’m curious about how we would think of what is good for a particular being simpliciter or if we need to make further distinctions here.

  2. I’m totally with this. If we (tacitly) thought that what people are entitled to is the opportunity to flourish (rather than flourishing) and if we needed to make policies that provide such opportunities for people that we do not know (as is the case when we make government policies), it would make complete sense to focus on what sort of things are very likely to be good for just about every human, rather than on providing the opportunity to flourish in an idiosyncratic way. But, as I take Rosati to be saying, that need not signal that we think the idiosyncratic way of flourishing is not really part of the agent’s good.

  3. Thanks for sharing this post! I think that the general point is spot on – totally, there are lots of cases of things which are goods for some a particular agent without being goods for human beings as such.

    I’m curious how far this reaches. That is: do you think there might be outright conflicts between an individual’s good qua a human being and her good qua the particular individual that she is? I’ll elaborate a bit.

    There are certain characteristically human functions which it’s good for any human being to carry out because of the kind of thing they are. This is a short list, maybe limited to the appropriate maintenance of our bodies, maybe including some inter-personal or intellectual activities. Whatever these characteristically human functions turn out to be, I could imagine a person for whom it would be good to not engage in those specific activities (or, in other words, to engage in other activities). Perhaps among the people with surprising goods, like the icicle-collector and grass-counter, are some for whom it would be better not to be human (provided that there can be non-human persons, and that personal identity over time need not be tied to a specific bodily form). Some dogs have pretty good lives, whales experience a range of emotions humans can’t, and birds can fly. It doesn’t seem absurd to think that those things – feeling lots of stuff, or flying – might be good for some people, just like counting blades of grass might be.

    Here’s what I take the upshot to be. If it’s possible that there can be such outright conflicts between good for an individual qua human and qua the individual that she is, it looks like the former has a pretty weak claim to be the one to pay attention to or protect legally. What’s more, it looks to be parasitic on the individual goods of all the human beings, not the other way round!

  4. Thanks for your comments. Yes, Nicole, I do want to make that distinction, but I express it in terms of the good for human beings v. the good for an individual person. I suspect that we do need to make further distinctions. As for how to assess the comparative good of the different selves we might become, it’s a question I’ve certainly thought about, but I’m not sure how to begin doing that. One thing we might do is invoke the good of human beings to think about such cases. Alternatively, we might ask what the person herself would prefer, if contemplating those possibilities ex ante. The person who loses her legs may well adjust to the loss and lead a good life, but it doesn’t follow that she wouldn’t have preferred not to have suffered the loss.

  5. Glad what I’ve written sounds right to you, Dave. No doubt there are further distinctions to be drawn, as Nicole’s comment suggests.

  6. Interesting question, Jan. I do think that what is good for an individual as the individual she is may conflict with and in fact override what would be good for her as a human being. But I don’t think it follows from the kinds of examples you offer that good for individuals qua human has “a pretty weak claim to be the one to pay attention to or protect legally. The law is, as we know, a blunt instrument, and has to be written to address the broad run of cases. We can, of course, build in some exceptions, so here is where variations in individuals’ good might come into play. (We, say, begin with public education, then address needs for special education of various sorts.) But it makes sense that our starting point would be with what’s true of most human beings. Also, given limited resources, often the best we may be able to do is to address the needs and welfare of humans as such.

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